We are thrilled to be talking to Jacqueline Woodson today hot on the heels of her National Book Award for Brown Girl Dreaming in the Young Adult category.
Our fingers are crossed for the Newbery too!
Here’s an excerpt from Brown Girl Dreaming:
I am born on a Tuesday at the University Hospital
a country caught
between Black and White.
I am born not long from the time
or far from the place
my great, great grandparents
worked the deep rich land
dawn till dusk
drank cool water from scooped out gourds
looked up and followed
the sky’s mirrored constellation
I am born as the south explodes,
too many people too many years
enslaved then emancipated
but not free, the people
who look like me
and getting killed
so that today?
February Twelfth Nineteen Sixty-three
and every day from this moment on,
brown children, like me, can grow up
free. Can grow up
learning and voting and walking and riding
wherever we want.
I am born in Ohio but
the stories of South Carolina already run
through my veins.
I feel so fortunate to have meet Jackie at the Nerdy Book Club meet up last year. My two tween/teen daughters came with me, uncomfortably as they were the only kids in a sea of adults, but they told me that they thought she was awesome! Down to earth, accessible and so nice! She chatted with my oldest about Instagram and how her kids are embarrassed by her (just like they are embarrassed to be there with me right now!). She just knows how to connect with kids!
I hope this interview makes you feel like you met Jacqueline Woodson too. If she is ever in your town for a book event, I can highly recommend the pleasure of meeting her!
Question 1: What is your favorite letter of the alphabet and why?
I don’t know if “A” is my *favorite* letter but I know I like it a lot. My friend, Toshi Reagon, talks about when explaining things to people who have a hard time understanding what you’re trying to say, you have to ‘start from the letter A’, meaning from the very beginning. You can’t start from “P” or “S” — people might not be there yet.
Question 2: Can you tell me about your struggle with reading as a child and how it affected your decision to become a writer?
You know, I think I was reading like a writer from a very young age — I was very slow and very deliberate, needing to understand something completely before moving on. To so many, this was a struggle, but now, looking back I know it wasn’t really *my* struggle, it was theirs. People aren’t patient. Kids are asked to digest a whole lot of stuff really quickly and then move on. Writers can’t do that. We have to take our time. So I was “behind” other kids. I’ve known I wanted to be a writer from a really young age and even though I wasn’t conscious of what I was doing, I was very determined. I always did really well on Reading Comprehension tests and I think even this confused people. By the time I was in 6th grade, I was finally reading a few grades above my reading level but I think it was that by that time, people had come to understand how I learned and had stopped rushing me!
Question 3A: The Christian Science Monitor says of Brown Girl Dreaming, “A memoir-in-verse done well – written by a woman who’s lived in remarkable times – invites readers to open pages and slip right in” but the New York Times worries that “that the title seems to confine the book in too narrow a box …Will girls who aren’t brown know, without prompting, that they too are invited to this party?”
I think people misread Veronica Chambers’ lovely, lovely review. I think she’s being a bit subversive here and saying that this is a dilemma in our society — that people who aren’t brown too often think literature about people of color isn’t for them. And this is a problem because the other assumption is that literature written from a white perspective is supposed to be for everyone.
Question 3B: Is this the conundrum of authors of color: how to be authenic yet appeal beyond a narrowly defined audience? Who do you think is defining this audience “box” and what can we — anyone who cares — do to expand it?
My hope is that the struggle all writers face is ‘how do I tell this story to the best of my ability?” And then it’s up to publishers, teachers, librarians, etc. to figure out how to and get the books into the hands of as many readers as possible. But in order to this, they have to first read the book and love it. When people love a book, they can see beyond everything they think might stop the book from getting into the world. Their passion is what moves the book into readers hands. This is what I love so much about The Nerdy Bookclub and Pragmatic Mom and We Need Diverse Books — the work is coming from a deep passion – just like writers’ work. I *am* authentic. I am not ‘narrowly defined’ nor is my literature – until someone tries to narrowly define it. And then I’m just cranky.
Question 4: A memoir-in-verse seems to be a lifetime in the making. What made you decide to write and how did you decide that now was the right time?
My mom died suddenly and I wanted to figured out who she was before she was my mom. I wanted to know her more deeply because all that info I thought I’d eventually get from her, say, the next time we sat and talked, was gone. I realized that the people who carried my history were growing old and I needed to get this story down while they were still living and still remembered things. I needed to understand how I got here and the context of my life through their stories. As I began to interview relatives and research my past, I began to get a really deep understanding of how the stories grew inside me. I had lived through so much history. My parents and grandparents had lived through so much. I didn’t want any of this forgotten. Brown Girl Dreaming is the story of myself and an ode to those who came before me, who made a way out of no way so that I could be educated and truly live the American Dream.
Question 5: What’s next for you?
I don’t know. Right now, I’m LOVING my family so much and spending time with my kids who are growing so crazily fast. Yesterday, my daughter had her first meeting with her manager to discuss film auditions she’d be going out on — And I thought “Breathe, Jackie. Remember when your parents thought writing was impossible but you wanted it more than anything.” When her manager asked her why she wanted to act, Toshi said “I just love it more than anything!” This morning my son who is 6 said “Maybe I’ll get a Nobel Prize for science. Wouldn’t that be cool, Mommy?” And I just teared up and hugged him. This against the backdrop of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Treyvon Martin and all the young brown men getting killed. My little brown boy with his glasses and mohawk dreaming of being a scientist. I just want to hug him and be here and keep him safe for another day.
Here are more of Jacqueline Woodson’s wonderful books!
Coming On Home Soon
Ada Ruth’s mama must go away to Chicago to work, leaving Ada Ruth and Grandma behind. It’s war time, and women are needed to fill the men’s jobs. As winter sets in, Ada Ruth and her grandma keep up their daily routine, missing Mama all the time. They find strength in each other, and a stray kitten even arrives one day to keep them company, but nothing can fill the hole Mama left. Every day they wait, watching for the letter that says Mama will be coming on home soon. Set during World War II, Coming On Home Soon has a timeless quality that will appeal to all who wait and hope. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
The Other Side
Clover’s mom says it isn’t safe to cross the fence that segregates their African-American side of town from the white side where Anna lives. But the two girls strike up a friendship, and get around the grown-ups’ rules by sitting on top of the fence together. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
From slavery to freedom, through segregation, freedom marches and the fight for literacy, the tradition they called Show Way has been passed down by the women in Jacqueline Woodson’s family as a way to remember the past and celebrate the possibilities of the future. Beautifully rendered in Hudson Talbott’s luminous art, this moving, lyrical account pays tribute to women whose strength and knowledge illuminate their daughters’ lives. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Chloe and her friends won’t play with the new girl, Maya. Every time Maya tries to join Chloe and her friends, they reject her. Eventually Maya stops coming to school. When Chloe’s teacher gives a lesson about how even small acts of kindness can change the world, Chloe is stung by the lost opportunity for friendship, and thinks about how much better it could have been if she’d shown a little kindness toward Maya. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
This Is the Rope: A Story From the Great Migration
Newbery Honor–winning author Jacqueline Woodson and Coretta Scott King Award–winning illustrator James Ransome use the rope to frame a thoughtful and moving story as readers follow the little girl’s journey. During the time of the Great Migration, millions of African American families relocated from the South, seeking better opportunities. With grace and poignancy, Woodson’s lilting storytelling and Ransome’s masterful oil paintings of country and city life tell a rich story of a family adapting to change as they hold on to the past and embrace the future. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
Coretta Scott King Award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson has written a poignant picture book about a little girl who waits hopefully for her father’s release from prison. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
After Tupac and D Foster
The day D Foster enters Neeka and her best friend’s lives, the world opens up for them. Suddenly they’re keenly aware of things beyond their block in Queens, things that are happening in the world—like the shooting of Tupac Shakur—and in search of their Big Purpose in life. When—all too soon—D’s mom swoops in to reclaim her, and Tupac dies, they are left with a sense of how quickly things can change and how even all-too-brief connections can touch deeply. [chapter book, ages 10 and up]
During a winter full of surprises, good and bad, Frannie starts seeing a lot of things in a new light—her brother Sean’s deafness, her mother’s fear, the class bully’s anger, her best friend’s faith and her own desire for “the thing with feathers.”
Jacqueline Woodson once again takes readers on a journey into a young girl’s heart and reveals the pain and the joy of learning to look beneath the surface. [young adult, ages 12 and up]
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